One of the greatest dangers posed by global climate change – certainly the one that seems to receive the greatest attention – is that of rising sea levels, caused by the expansion of ocean volumes and by the melting of glaciers and ice caps. As a result, coastal areas around the world, including major urban areas, could be inundated, as depicted in Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.
Less widely discussed, but arguably more ominous, is the expected impact of climate change on world agriculture. Though some uncertainty remains about the magnitude of the changes that are coming, scientists now universally agree that farmers will see fundamental shifts in rainfall patterns as well as rising temperatures. In the tropics and subtropics particularly, this will intensify pest outbreaks and reduce crop productivity. Further damage will come from more severe and frequent extreme weather events, such as drought and flooding. Farmers in developing countries are highly vulnerable to such damage, because widespread rural poverty limits their options.
The outlook for agriculture is now well understood, in large part thanks to the efforts of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Among the many specialists who helped the IPCC craft its central messages – conveyed through a series of reports released in 2007 – were various scientists working in the Centers supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).
For this purpose, CGIAR scientists drew upon a wealth of experience and information, together with powerful analytical tools. Much of their work in recent years, carried out in collaboration with many national partners, has been aimed at helping poor farmers achieve more sustainable agricultural production, despite variable and severe weather as well as degradation of agriculture’s natural resource base. Now, the CGIAR centers are poised to boost those efforts, focusing on assessment of climate change impacts, adaptation of agriculture to these impacts and mitigation of future climate change through better land management.
ASSESSING THE IMPACTS
The impacts of global climate change on agriculture will vary over time and across locations, depending on different agroecologies, farming systems, production conditions and even particular plant species.
During recent years, CGIAR scientists have progressed significantly – with the aid of geographical information systems (GIS) and simulation models – in determining what consequences rural people, especially the poor, can expect to face at specific locations as a result of climate change during the coming decades. In pioneering studies, for example, they have predicted negative effects on key staples, such as maize and wheat, in major production environments and across entire continents.
The information resulting from such analysis will be essential for targeting strategies and measures aimed at helping rural people cope with climate change and for adjusting these interventions to variable circumstances in diverse landscapes.
CLIMATE CHANGE MITIGATION
CGIAR researchers and their national partners are investigating a number of promising options for reducing emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases through innovative approaches to the management of tropical lands. Among these are initiatives to help reduce deforestation and promote agroforestry systems and the production of biofuels. Such options could permit the removal of significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, thus mitigating future climate change. CGIAR researchers are also seeking ways to reduce emissions of methane from irrigated rice production and livestock and of nitrous oxide from the application of nitrogen fertilizer.
It remains to be seen whether adaptation and mitigation will proceed quickly enough to forestall major dislocations and great human suffering in rural areas of the developing world. A key requirement for speeding progress consists of policies that are conducive to sustainable improvement in agricultural production and natural resource management. CGIAR researchers are exploring a number of avenues with other international institutions and with partners in developing countries to support the development of such policies.
Among the products that will come from CGIAR policy research are simulation models that permit comprehensive assessments of the many factors affecting food security, poverty and the environment, as influenced by climate change. Such information is critical for constructing plausible development scenarios that better enable policy makers to define a vision of the way forward to sustainable development and design measures that will help realize that vision.
Without such measures, the United Nations Millennium Development Goals for 2015 will most likely remain an empty promise for many of the world’s rural poor, particularly as they struggle to get the better of climate change.
Nathan C. Russell is senior communications officer, CGIAR Secretariat, World Bank. The CGIAR is a strategic partnership of countries, international and regional organizations and private foundations supporting the work of 15 international centers. In collaboration with national agricultural research systems, civil society and the private sector, the CGIAR fosters sustainable agricultural growth through high-quality science. Visit www.cgiar.org.